What It Really Means to Pay What You Can
Recently I opened a couple of shows for my friend Mark Erelli, a great singer, guitarist, and songwriter who’s also based in Boston. During his shows, he began the musician’s traditional “I have CDs for sale” spiel, but his was a bit different. He explained to the audience that he sells his music on a “pay what you can” basis, that he wants people to take some music home in whatever way works for them. I was struck and inspired by that sentiment, and when our summer tour was about to begin, I suggested to my bandmates that we start doing the same.
For the last month of touring, we’ve been telling our audiences that we normally charge $15 for CDs, but we have begun selling them on a “pay what you can” basis. We ask people to think about what music is worth to them, and what they can afford, and we usually throw in some kind of gas-money or Spotify-related quip about how hard it is to make money in this business, just for good measure. We say that we want people to have our CD if they want to buy it, and if money is tight, that’s okay.
People have responded well so far, but I feel obligated to mention that straight-up asking for money onstage is easier for some people than others. Society rewards that kind of thing when it comes from three young, conventionally attractive women (two of whom are white). This was the main criticism rightfully lobbed at Amanda Palmer when her TED Talk and book The Art of Asking was making the rounds several years ago. Remember that? It was about crowdfunding, and about a half-baked philosophy of letting your audience help you rather than asking them. NPR’s review of Palmer’s book notes that these are the questions she did not ask: “Who is allowed to ask for help? Who is heard when they ask for help? Whom do people want to help?” We, for reasons that are largely outside our control, happen to fall into the category of “people who people want to help.” That doesn’t mean I feel bad accepting people’s Kickstarter pledges or their extra $5-10 for a CD, but I feel bad that not every artist has the freedom to ask for those things and be heard.
In my last couple of columns, I’ve been ruminating a bit on how difficult it has become for musicians to make a living. I don’t want to paint us musicians as martyrs, though. We chose to do this job because we like doing it. And I know I am far from the first or only person to be sounding alarm bells about the financial state of the music industry. Even so, I’m trying to shed a bit more light on issues of financial viability for independent artists, in the hope that listeners and supporters might understand the landscape a bit better, and fellow musicians might find solidarity. I believe that music is good for society. I also believe very strongly that music will suffer if music careers become accessible only to people who either are independently wealthy or happen to get blessed by the major-label gods.
This state of affairs wasn’t caused by music consumers deciding en masse that they didn’t want to pay for music anymore. Rather, the avenues (Spotify, etc.) appeared to consume music without paying for it, and people took that route because … of course they did. I did it too! I am, at this moment, listening to an album on Spotify that I did not pay for. It’s easy and we all like free things. The fault lies with the people who decided they could make a buck by devaluing musicians’ labor, and we can’t undo that now. But I still believe in paying for music, and I pay for music in various ways (including purchasing too many bands’ hats that I don’t wear, but that’s neither here nor there).
The “pay what you can” system is still a new experiment for us. But from a purely economic standpoint, so far, it has helped my band sell more CDs and make more money than we made before. I think if our audience skewed younger, we might be making less per CD. But even if we were making less per CD, I think I would still believe in this way of doing things because it allows us to say something about our values. We want to remind people that creators deserve to be compensated for their labor. We also believe that art, and all elements of a good life, should be accessible to everyone, and that those who are well off have an important opportunity to pay it forward and help ensure that accessibility. “Pay what you can” is, in my view, a good system for the world in general, not just for music.